Local groundhogs predicted an early spring, but I’m guessing even they are befuddled by what’s actually happening. Over the past three weeks, weather occurrences in the Midwest and other areas of the U.S. have been unprecedented, including an early and deadly start to tornado season. For the first time in 142 years of record keeping, Chicago has experienced four, +80F-degree days in a row. Expert meteorologist, Tom Skilling on WGN Chicago, wrote on his March 17 blog, “A preliminary survey of Friday highs across the Lower 48 indicates at least 157 cities scattered across 22 states exceeded their high-temperature records for the date. One estimate is that more than 1,600 high-temperature records have been broken across the country over the past week.”
All that comes after we had a warmer than usual winter with below average snowfall while Europe was buried by heavy snow and experienced deadly cold. Regardless of the cause, anyone who believes global climate change is a myth needs to have his or her head examined.
Folks who reside in the concrete jungles of the cities are reveling in this warmth, taking pleasure in lunch breaks outside; walking, jogging, biking and golfing in shorts; maybe calling in sick to grab some R & R in the sunshine. Despite a relatively mild winter, their elation is still understandable, even though many are oblivious to the ramifications. Ol’ Sol has been buoying the spirits of humans since we first started walking the Earth, and that’s as it should be.
While many people are enjoying this record-breaking warmth, I have empathy for farmers who depend on weather for their livelihoods. Many of the apple growers and others with fruit trees are feeling apprehensive, concerned about losing their harvests, because trees are already starting to trend toward budding. A late cold spell can cause the proverbial, “nip it in the bud,” which means no fruit. One might be tempted to use the old cliché and declare that temperature records “have been dropping like flies,” but the disquieting reality is that flies and other bugs are doing the reverse–actually rising quickly in response to a mild winter and much too warm, early spring. It’s all about balance. In an area with four seasons, they need to be distinct. And we should be careful what we wish for.
As an outgrowth of my passion for gardening, I’ve been a practicing phenologist for 22 years. It literally pays to chronicle the clues so seeds and purchased plants aren’t wasted. According to The Free Dictionary, phenology is “the scientific study of cyclical biological events, such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to climatic conditions. Phenological records of the dates on which seasonal phenomena occur provide important information on how climate change affects ecosystems over time.” One does not need a degree in biology or anything else to be a phenologist. Many citizen scientists qualify for that title. The real requirements include an inquisitive mind, keen observational skills and a notebook.
At first, I was elated by our early spring weather, thinking it was just a fluke to be relished before we were knocked back to reality with another 5-inch snowstorm like the one we had on March 2. Here in SW Wisconsin, fifteen degrees above our early-March average of 40-42F, was nice, especially when it melted all the snow piles. But it didn’t stop there. Our high temperatures just kept climbing: twenty-plus degrees were a treat and thirty-plus was sweet. Records were broken over and over, astonishing everyone. Our low temps at night have been higher than our average high, daytime temperatures. All the trees, shrubs, bulbs, perennials, crops, birds, critters and insects are going bonkers. The human body needs time to adjust to major temperature swings. By the time my thermometer topped off at a muggy, 82F, forty degrees above normal for two days in a row, bewilderment set in. I couldn’t help feeling like I’m living in a science fiction movie and began to wonder if I should avail myself of the Recombobulation Area at the local airport.
Some observations from my 2012 phenology notebook:
3/7: Giant Pussy Willow (Salix chaenomeloides) starting to push catkins.
3/8: Frost already out of ground—fresh mole tunnels through grass in side yard.
3/9: Large flock of grackles arrived a month earlier than last year.
3/17: Trees in neighborhood have leaf buds emerging at late-April stage.
3/18: Squirrels and robins getting frisky.
Saw first white butterfly of season—at least a month early.
Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) and other mini, bulb flowers blooming 3 weeks early.
Giant Pussy Willow popping its pollen—3 weeks early—100s of bees harvesting.
Even before all these weather anomalies, prophets of all persuasions were predicting the end of the world, or at least, the world as we know it. Archeologists still work to decipher ancient calendars and their meanings, in search of clues to the future. Environmentalists continue to sound the alarm about global climate change. Politicians who either hate or mistrust science, and/or know nothing about Nature, are engaged in fierce debates about what may or may not be happening and who’s to blame. The Sun, moving toward solar maximum, is hurling CMEs (coronal mass ejections) at Earth, causing geomagnetic storms that not only affect our atmosphere, planet, satellites, and power grid, but also human beings.
Meanwhile, Mother Nature is ignoring all the discussions and is going about her own business dancing with the Sun.
A major astronomical event occurs on Tuesday, March 20: it’s the Vernal Equinox, or the official, first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The word “vernal” means green which is appropriate for this time of year, and the word “equinox” comes from “equi” meaning equal and “nox” meaning night. The sun rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west on only two days of the year. Those days are called “equinoxes,” because they also contain equal hours of daylight and dark. The other one is in September, the Autumnal Equinox, also known as the first day of Fall. In the Southern Hemisphere, the names are reversed, as their seasons are the opposite of ours.
Unlike our ancient ancestors, we take our sun for granted, barely giving it a second thought on most days. We notice that it’s either out or not, and that’s about it. The funny thing about that observation is that it’s wrong–the sun is always out; we’re the ones that are either turned away or under the clouds. Ol’ Sol used to get a lot more respect in days gone by when people revered and even worshiped him, making sacrifices and presenting offerings to woo his favor. Of course back then, folks weren’t sure the seasons would progress year after year, and that the sun would always return, so they felt they should do everything possible to ensure that he did. Our technology has let us get pretty cocky in our certainties about the sun, so every once in a while, he likes to remind us who’s the boss. The past several weeks have seen examples when he lobbed some extra-large puffs of solar wind at us, triggering auroras seen across the northern tier of the United States, and he’s not done yet.
Many people tend to mock primitive Pagan sun-worshipers as ignorant, but they weren’t wrong in their admiration of our star. While they may not have known the physics, chemistry or biology of the process, they understood that the sun performs a major feat of wizardry for us. And it does it from 93 million miles away. It sends its light energy, and plants use it to produce every bit of food we consume, whether directly from them or through the animals that eat the plants first. Getting down to the most elemental level, we are in fact, made of starlight. Now that IS pretty magical stuff!
No one knows or can accurately predict what kind of weather the next seasons will bring. For NOW, all we can really do is go with the flow, hold positive thoughts and enjoy the good parts. So, as of 12:14 A.M. (CDT) on Tuesday, March 20, Happy Vernal Equinox.
Petition to the Sun
Welcome back oh shining Sun;
Let the cold and snow be done!
Grant our wish, yon Star so bright:
Sweep away long Winter’s night.
Kiss the Earth with beams of gold,
Make new again all that’s old.
Coax the vernal splendor out,
Banish all our fear and doubt.
Fill us with your sunbeams true,
So from within, we’ll glow with you,
And with our smiles and sighs,
Starlight twinkle out our eyes.
Read about the possible effects of solar flares on human health.
Nifty site with constantly updated info all about the sun and how it affects the Earth.
Follow what’s going on upstairs with free e-mail alerts from SpaceWeather.
Would you like to know if you were born during a period of solar minimum or maximum? Or just for entertainment, see if solar cycles correlate with historical events? Use the spiffy Sunspot Plotter–select any date from 1755 forward from the pull-down menus and the plotter instantly shifts to that day to show a chart of sunspot activity.